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Judge Says Elizabethtown Man Can’t Withdraw His Guilty Plea For 2012 Slaying of Girlfriend

A prison inmate from Elizabethtown who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 2014 for the 2012 killing of his girlfriend cannot withdraw the plea and go to trial, a judge ruled.

Benjamin Daniel Klinger, now 24, is serving 28 to 56 years at the State Correctional Institution ― Albion in Erie County for the killing of 17-year-old Samantha “Sammi” Heller on Dec. 4, 2012. Authorities said Klinger, who was 19 at the time, drove his car more than 100 mph into a guardrail on Route 283 in Rapho Township in an attempt to kill Heller, his passenger. She survived the crash and he suffocated her on the roadside, authorities said in court papers.

“I accept full responsibility for the loss of a very special person,” Klinger told the court as he pleaded guilty in 2014. Standing and facing Heller’s relatives at the 2014 court appearance, Klinger added, “I want you to know with all my heart I’m sorry … really sorry.” At the time, he was represented by Lancaster lawyer Christopher P. Lyden.

Klinger got the sentence of 28 to 56 years in exchange for his guilty plea. The Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office announced on Tuesday, Nov. 7, that Lancaster County Common Pleas Judge Margaret Miller recently denied Klinger’s request to withdraw his plea and go to trial.

In seeking to withdraw the plea, Klinger argued that Lyden gave him bad advice and declined to fully investigate potential defenses. Miller wrote in her order denying the request that there is no merit to Klinger’s claim, finding Klinger has apparently become dissatisfied with his sentence since the plea.

“While the harsh reality of (Klinger’s) lengthy sentence may have finally set in,” Judge Miller wrote, “such reality fails to negate the fact that on August 29, 2014, (Klinger) stood before this court, fully versed in the facts of his case and the charges against him, and entered a knowing and voluntary plea of guilty.

“(Klinger’s) current displeasure with his sentence, or hindsight regret of his decisions, cannot change this.”

Assistant District Attorney Travis S. Anderson represents the prosecution for the appeal proceedings. Klinger is represented by West Chester lawyer Shannon K. McDonald, who did not respond by press time to a message left after business hours inviting her to comment for this article.

At a hearing last year, Anderson called Lyden to testify of his interactions with Klinger. Lyden testified he told Klinger it was Klinger’s decision to plead guilty; Lyden said he did not specifically advise Klinger to accept a plea offer.

Lyden explained the challenges Klinger would have faced at trial, including many prosecution witnesses who would have testified about the volatile nature of Klinger’s relationship with Heller, and Klinger’s prior threat to intentionally crash his car while she was a passenger.

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